Silly Things We Do That Keep Us Sane II

What do you do that keeps you sane? 

In my first “Silly Things We Do” essay, I speculated that many of us have these things we do that would appear impractical and odd were it not for the good they do us. Funny how writing about that one habit of resting in winter sunshine has given me a lens for evaluating so many other things I find myself doing.

The “silly thing” I’ve noticed lately involves a collection of teddy bears, two rabbits, a dog, and a pig – all stuffed animals – that sit in a corner of my bedroom closet. I realize that I’m a middle-aged woman admitting to stuffed animals. My Google search as to whether or not this counts as laughable, weird, immature, or otherwise silly was inconclusive. However, I’m still taking a deep breath as I admit that I – a woman with aspirations to emotional maturity and professional gravitas – have a collection of stuffed animals that catches my eyes as I get ready in the morning and wind down at night. 

I can’t help it. There’s nowhere else I’d rather keep these little stuffed critters. They make me smile. Oh, the stories! 

The pig was a joke, of course, but the workplace antics leading up to it represented months of office fun that actually left me feeling pleased when Mondays rolled around. Lest you think that my colleagues and I were slacking, I assure you that I’ve rarely managed as much productivity as I did during that time. (BTW, I believe that employee morale is one of the most under-valued resources of the contemporary workplace, but I’ll save that for another essay.)

My mother gave me one of the rabbits – a big, lop-eared bunny with curly grey fur – during my college days. I’d recently been diagnosed with a mood disorder. I remember how much I judged myself in those days for having trouble (so I thought then) with “adulting.” The gift of that rabbit from a parent who believed in me whole-heartedly and had nothing but love and encouragement for me felt deeply comforting. The term “transitional object” can so diminish the power of these beautiful symbols that remind us of the people who believe in us and get us through our difficult phases of life. 

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

I could tell story after story. These stuffed critters came from family and friends over the years, and while they most often sit there in my closet, I occasionally bring them out for other purposes. A large tan dog with floppy ears went with me to church one Sunday to star in a children’s sermon, and I don’t think I’ve ever had listeners receive anything I’ve said with as much enthusiasm as those children received the visit of the big, floppy-eared dog. I still laugh at the memory of all the children (and even some adults) who wanted to hug the dog afterwards. 

“A memorial is a pocket-sized collection of memories that we can take with us,” writes Dan Moseley in one of my favorite books, Lose, Love, Live: The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change.* “The work of remembering,” he explains, “involves downsizing the reality so we can carry it within us into the future.”[1] I like Moseley’s lens on memorials, and as I reread Lose, Love, Live recently, my mind went to the stuffed animals in the corner of my closet. That gathering of button eyes, velvety noses, and worn fur keeps saying to me, “Love.” Each cushy critter reminds me of love and the myriad ways it’s touched my life over the years, both in giving and receiving.

I believe that whatever else sanity means, it means not forgetting love as an active presence in our world. I don’t mean to make gods out of any of the people or relationships that have given me stuffed animals over the years. I do, though, suspect that God resides in love of all kinds, in all the ways love touches, heals, and blesses lives. And why shouldn’t we encounter God in spaces of play and comfort as well as in spaces of seriousness and striving?

I, at least, take the presence of stuffed animals in a person’s life with a great deal of reverence and appreciation. In some cases, I even give them as gifts to other adults. If even one stuffed animal here or there reminds someone of love at a time when they need it, then that soft and furry little life will have been one of great blessing.

What about you? What reminds you of love?

The Beauty of Rest: Contemplative Essays(Clay Patin Press 2023) is available for free on Kindle today (4/12/23 Pacific Time) only.

[1] Dan Moseley. Lose, Love, Live: The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change* (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010), 64-65.

Inviting Our Demons in for Tea (Kat’s Dreams)

Sometimes it helps to spend time with the difficult things in our lives using a grace-filled lens and a lot of imagination about what God might actually be redeeming even now.

Author Callie J. Smith discusses her new novel Kat’s Dreams and its setting during the season of Lent.

Video Transcript:

“Inviting our Demons in for Tea”

There’s this story of an ancient monk who hears knocking on the door, and the monk opens the door and finds demons out there. I love the way the monk responds. The monk invites the demons inside for a cup of tea. 

I tend to think of demons as those parts of life that I wish didn’t exist, as those things that prevent the world from being what God surely made it to be. And to imagine inviting those things inside for a cup of tea is a bit of a stretch. It’s a stretch, and I think that’s probably the point. 

When I wrote the novel Kat’s Dreams, I wanted to tell the story of a woman who’s trying to put some of her own demons behind her. She’s recovering from something that all too many of us can resonate with. She’s been broadsided by a #MeToo experience, and she doesn’t know what to do with it, but she’s realizing that she can’t just push it away and ignore it. 

I set her story during the season of Lent because Lent is another way that Christian tradition has imagined people spending time with difficult things in light of redemption. Kat is letting her friends (and even a potential love interest) help her deal with memories that still have something to say to her. She’s letting God connect her with the people, and support, and love she needs in order to listen.

Maybe that’s something that a lot of us would like to let God do in our lives. Kat’s story is one of those stories that helps me picture what hope can look like. Sometimes, stories can help us look at life with a little more imagination about what God actually might be redeeming. 

So, that’s why I sometimes do ask myself: what is that demon, what is that thing, I’m needing to invite inside for a cup of tea and spend some time with right now? What about you? What thing could you imagine inviting to sit down for a cup of tea?

Our Imperfect Saints

Autumn makes me think of my grandmother’s pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies. She’d cover them in orange buttercream frosting and then decorate the tops with Jack-o’-lantern faces using a rich cocoa icing. I loved those cookies. My grandmother sold them for 35 cents apiece at the local pumpkin festival, and they sold out every year.

My grandmother loved making things that made people smile. As a child hovering around her in the kitchen, I wanted to learn to do whatever she did. We’d stand at the kitchen counter together. Talk of baking would flow in and out of her questions about my schoolwork and what my friends and I were doing. She’d listen with a smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes, prompting me to say even more. I treasured those hours together.

I’ve often thought of my grandmother as one of the “saints” who went before me. I’ve thought of her faith as the thing that let her move through the world as she did, allowing her to smile as she smiled. Experience has shown me, of course, that faith involves more than smiles. In fact, I’m finding that both my faith and my grandmother’s legacy are becoming more and more complex as I live into them.

I knew even as a child that my grandmother had days when her smile wouldn’t come, when her attention strayed to things that furrowed her brow. Attempting to talk with her at the kitchen counter on those days, I’d try to tell better stories, describe happier things, say something to draw her back. When her attention returned, however, she’d often caution me about the neighbors or friends I’d spoken of, warning me that they couldn’t be trusted. I knew she heard things, saw things, and even smelled things that weren’t real. I didn’t understand what was happening, and I said nothing.

When I reached high school, a biology class introduced me to descriptions of mental illness. The lists of symptoms captured my attention. I saw in them, for the first time, possible explanations for the behaviors I’d noticed in my grandmother. The descriptions left me wondering what she experienced. I spoke with some family members about what I’d read, but I still said nothing about my grandmother.

Many people and many families say nothing when a family member is suffering from mental illness. They don’t understand what’s happening with a loved one, and so they remain silent. I completely understand the silence.

As a college student, I remained silent for a long while about what was happening in my own life. Energy and euphoria for a few days, then exhaustion and tears for the next week – I’d never before experienced such extremes. I didn’t understand what was happening with me, and I kept most of it to myself for quite a while.

Twenty-some years later, I’ve become much more familiar with the experience of navigating a mood disorder. I don’t have the paranoia or more extreme symptoms my grandmother experienced. I also don’t know to what extent my mood disorder involves a genetic predisposition toward certain kinds of mental illness. What I do know is that I’m still coming to know and appreciate my grandmother and her faith even years after her death.

My grandmother and I can place ourselves in a story and a history as old as the Bible. I look to Moses, Sarah, Abraham, and the Israelites who struggled and persevered faithfully, never seeing the fullness of God’s promise in their lifetime. I think about the disciples, who loved in the face of mockery and suffering, embodying Christ’s unending love. The Bible is full of stories pointing to God’s desire for fullness of life, for an ongoing healing and blessing (“perfecting”) that Christ’s followers have been empowered to live. These stories remind me as they may have reminded my grandmother: God does not promise a perfect life free of suffering, but God promises to be with us as we persevere in love. 

As Paul writes in the letter to the Hebrews, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2a). Like that great cloud of witnesses who came before us, we also make our way within God’s still-unfolding redemption, a way shown by the love of Christ and inspired by those who have persevered that their lives might point to that love.

I think of my grandmother’s life as pointing to that love. I suspect she struggled for as much fullness of life as her mental health allowed, and so I continue to reflect on a faith that allowed her to face her struggles and persevere: raising a family, frosting sugar cookies for the pumpkin festival, and leaving her granddaughter a legacy of so many smiles and so much love. Memories of what she did, and made, and shared, never cease to encourage me about what’s possible.

The unfolding work of God happens even and especially in the context of imperfect and painful legacies. I’ve sometimes experienced a legacy like mental illness as a burden, and yet I wonder if that sense of a weight might not be laid aside, much like the weight that Paul speaks to the Hebrews of laying aside. What if a difficult legacy came to us more as an ingredient of our days, as an element in our work to embody God’s love and healing? We could run the race that is our days drawing strength from every ounce of love and perseverance in our ancestors without expecting them to have been any more perfect than Moses, Sarah, Abraham, or the disciples. We could run on behalf of them and so many others, knowing that none of us has yet beheld all that’s possible.

That’s a massive scope to keep in mind, of course. Many days, I find I do best when I back up and focus on smaller pieces of that bigger picture. Like baking. I bring out the cookbooks and cookie cutters my grandmother left me. I roll out dough knowing that I still don’t quite achieve the consistent thickness that she did. I’ve found, though, that even oddly shaped cookies, hung on a doorknob or left on an office table, will bring smiles. Perhaps neighbors and colleagues notice the love behind the gesture. Like my grandmother, I love giving smiles. Though little things, those smiles nonetheless remind me of what powerful blessing we carry and how far we can run with the examples of love we have, by God’s grace, been given.

This essay originally appeared in the October 10, 2022 issue of Bearings Online.